Tomorrow is World Suicide Prevention Day. Whenever I think about suicide, I have this image before my inward eye: the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, undoing the knot by which Judas hanged himself, ready to remove him from the influence of the mocking demons at Hell’s Gate. The Gospels tell us that Judas betrayed Jesus to the collaboration rulers of the Jewish people, which led to the crucifixion on Good Friday. Augustine says that Judas’ suicide did not wipe away his guilt for Jesus’ death but added another wrong to that overwhelming transgression. Yet there would still have been room for healing penitence if he had been open to it.
The anonymous mediaeval sculptor of Strasbourg Cathedral clearly believed that Judas was forgiven, even after his suicide; sometimes the artist can convey the message more clearly than the philosopher!
But here is Augustine*:
Do we justly execrate the deed of Judas, and does truth itself pronounce that by hanging himself he rather aggravated than expiated the guilt of that most iniquitous betrayal, since, by despairing of God’s mercy in his sorrow that wrought death, he left to himself no place for a healing penitence?
How much more ought he to abstain from laying violent hands on himself who has done nothing worthy of such a punishment! For Judas, when he killed himself, killed a wicked man; but he passed from this life chargeable not only with the death of Christ, but with his own: for though he killed himself on account of his crime, his killing himself was another crime.
Why, then, should a man who has done no ill do ill to himself, and by killing himself kill the innocent?
We are still asking the same question today. Part of the answer is there in Matthew’s Gospel; Judas felt he was on his own and past redemption:
When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”
“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”
So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.
Judas was alone when he most needed a friend. The disciples were too immersed in their own grief to look out for him. The Councillors made it perfectly clear that Judas was no longer of use to them and dissociate themselves from him. With no-one at hand to help, he went away and hanged himself. Tomorrow we visit the Grief Project, aiming to strengthen and comfort those bereaved by suicide, and to prevent its occurring in the first place.
*City of God by Saint Augustine, Marcus Dods.